Credit Photograph by Grace Beahm / Pool / Getty
Liberals have of late devoted a great number of pages to describing, analyzing, and lamenting the declining faith in American institutions, and its role in the election of Donald Trump. But, as the hung jury in the murder trial of Michael Slager—the police officer who, in April, 2015, shot an unarmed fifty-year-old black man, Walter Scott—makes clear, the resounding faith in particular institutions can be just as corrosive to democracy.
Earlier this year, a Gallup poll found that only nine per cent of Americans had a lot of confidence in Congress, and that only twenty per cent had any faith in the integrity of newspapers. But fifty-six per cent of the public felt that the police were trustworthy. This is the reason that Slager’s defense could essentially argue that the jury should trust his account of the shooting—in which Scott attacked him and posed an imminent threat—over the footage captured by a bystander’s cell-phone camera, which shows Slager unloading rounds into a fleeing man, and convince at least one juror. It’s the reason that Officer Timothy Loehmann was not charged in the death of Tamir Rice, Officer Dante Servin was acquitted for shooting into a crowd in Chicago and killing Rekia Boyd, and Officer Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. It’s the reason that, as this year closes, we can anticipate reading some version of this story in the one to come.
Last year, in a speech to the National Press Club, Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, addressed the racial tensions that had roiled the state after the Scott shooting and, weeks later, the massacre of nine churchgoers at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston. The people of South Carolina, she pointed out, had not resorted to violence in their response, despite their frustrations. (This, she said, was in contrast to the reactions to police shootings in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, where, Haley claimed, the Black Lives Matter movement had “laid waste” to black communities.) The patience of South Carolina was further tested as the trials of Dylann Roof, accused of the church shooting, and Slager were scheduled to take place at courthouses across the street from each other in Charleston. (After months of delays, Roof’s trial is expected to begin today.) The mistrial in the Scott case, reportedly the result of a single holdout juror, suggests that the patience and faith Haley extolled are actually civic liabilities, which benefit a judicial system that is incapable in most instances of justly evaluating its own officers. South Carolina’s residents remained peaceful following the Scott shooting, but to nonchalant bureaucracy peace appears to be identical to passivity.
In the wake of the non-verdict, Haley urged more patience. There would be a new trial, she said. “Justice is not always immediate, but we must all have faith that it will be served.” Senator Tim Scott, the black Republican whom Haley appointed to the Senate, in 2012, and who spoke out on the Senate floor this summer about his own experiences of racial profiling, released a statement saying, too, that “we must continue to have faith in our judicial system.” This bypassed the damning fact that the jury—six white men, five white women, and a single black man, in a county that as of the last census is thirty per cent black—was unable to unanimously determine that it is illegal to shoot an unarmed man in the back. Scott’s mother spoke to the press about her belief that God would provide justice—an altogether reasonable recourse given the failure of human beings to do the same. “It’s not over until God says it’s over,” she said.
There are other implications. The current conversation around police use of excessive force is focussed on the idea that body cameras can regulate police behavior. Yet the outcome of Slager’s trial should remind us of something we have known since the Rodney King verdict, twenty-four years ago: even video evidence cannot overcome subjective bias in the criminal-justice system. Taken in total, the reluctance of juries to hold police accountable is an inversion of the “fake news” crisis in the Presidential election. There, a gullible public believes outrageous claims that reaffirm its world view. In the criminal-justice system, as black America has long known, an indifferent public sees evidence of outrageous actions but chooses not to believe it in order to preserve its world view. We have moved far beyond facts. The only novelty is that the rest of the country is now seeing it.